I have to admit that the one genre of writing that I've never had much liking for has always been the autobiography. There are just so many ways a person can be self-serving when they write about themselves, either by talking about the amazing things they've done (according to them), or detailing the incredible sacrifices they had to make on their road to fame thus ensuring we know just what martyrs they've been.
Worst of all is the playing down of their accomplishments in alluring displays of false modesty. That way, it is hoped I assume, we readers will be quicker in anointing them with a seal of approval that ensures them their "rightful" place in the annals of history. How many times have you heard it said of a politician that they are attempting to ensure his or her place in history? I can't think of anything scarier to be honest.
It's bad enough the damage they inflict just through their day-to-day interference with our world without them attempting to leave their mark so that they will be remembered and have a reason for writing their memoirs. In some cases you have to wonder, which came first, the need to write the memoir or the need to do something to be able to write a memoir.
That's not to say there aren't worthwhile memoirs where the author has used situations in his or her life as an example of how to overcome a difficulty. In those instances they aren't technically writing a memoir as they are not the subject matter and are only relevant because of what their presence adds to the topic.
After reading all that it probably won't come as any surprise to you me saying that if I had known that the Random House Canada publication Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk was a memoir I wouldn't have been so hot to read it. Maybe it was the comparison to Joyce' Ulysses that confused me into somehow thinking it was a novel, I'm not sure, but I do know that it wasn't until I had the book in my hands that I realized it wasn't fiction.
Thankfully Mr. Pamuk is not the type of writer who feels the need for self-aggrandisement and has merely included himself in the proceedings as a reporter on events and an example. He isn't writing about himself, he is merely participating in the telling of Istanbul's secrets.
As he describes the city, he acknowledges her past and the spell she exerted upon Westerners. The jewel of the Orient, The Mysterious East, and all the other stereotypes that were perpetuated by 19th century romantics are examined and found to be inaccurate even at the time of the their conception. By the mid to late 1800s the Ottoman Empire was already shrinking back to the borders of Istanbul, and she was starting to reflect the decline.
By the time of the author's birth in the 1950's, in the brave new world of the Republic of Turkey, empire and royalty are fading into memory as quickly as former palaces become apartment blocks and rooming houses. Even those remnants, which were mainly along the Bosphorus River that bisects Istanbul, had been built by bureaucrats of the Empire in a bid to escape from the crowding of Istanbul's core by waves of immigrants. (It 's apparent the concept of moving to the suburbs to escape the poor huddled masses is not a modern or solely Western concept)
Mr.Pamuk describes the yahs, the Turkish word for these waterside mansions as mere shadows of a destroyed culture. In other words they weren't even a pale imitation of the architecture of the Empire at its heyday that inspired the Romantic urges of 19th century Europe. So when a painter would come to Istanbul to record the mysterious east with all of its splendour he would find himself forced into "orientalizing" his work to make it "authentic"
The Bosphorus is obviously central to Istanbul as she repeatedly pops up in the book. She exerts a magnetic pull upon the author that keeps him returning to her banks at various stages in his life. That the word Bosphorus in Turkish means throat, and that the river delves deep into the middle of the city, gives the impression that if you were to follow the river to its furthest extent you would be able to delve deeply into the heart of Istanbul's secrets.
The river has its own mythology, stories of bodies disposed of in her murky depths that are quickly pulled out to sea by the fierce currents. But in spite of her fierceness she is also the site of many a family outing as parents and children head to her banks for a weekend afternoon outing. Of course there is also the known curative powers of the sea air, which doctors would prescribe patients in the final stages of their recuperation as a tonic, to spend time upon her waters in one of the many fishing boats that were for hire.
But that too is in the past, from the author's youth of the 1950's and 60's, although he does say that to this day he will always associate the Bosphorus with good health. But even those thoughts cannot dispel the overlying air of melancholy that is described as the constant state of being for the people of Istanbul.
Hûzûn is the Turkish word for melancholy, but according to Mr. Pamuk it has little in common with the word as we know it. In Istanbul especially it takes on a meaning that goes beyond sadness or individual grief. It is a shared sense of loss that is felt by all her inhabitants. In every neighbourhood no matter how poor or how wealthy one can find ruins of the empire.
The constant reminder of what once was and can never be again imbues the soul and spirit of the "Istanbullus". According to the author one can attempt to pretend it doesn't exist for a time, but then when it does hit you, another building collapses into ruins revealing some little piece of princely past, it hits you even harder.
Istanbul is a voyage into the heart of a city as seen through the eye of memories, history, and a person who has lived his entire life on her streets. Orhan Pamuk is so sentimentally attached to his city and its past that he resides again in the apartment of his childhood as if he's trying to regain the lost empire of the city of fifty years ago. Would the Istanbul of his childhood tried to have jailed him for writing "Anti- Turkish" thoughts? Or is that part of what he sees as part of the decline.
The irony of course is that the Ottoman Empire was seen by those under its rule as cruel and despotic, something to be thrown off like shackles. Here in Istanbul it appears that while they may not long for the actual Empire, they are preoccupied with the loss of its trappings and ostentatious displays of wealth. But to think that would only to see the veneer of feeling that affects life within this city that's older then most of the post Roman Empire western world.
Orhan Pamuk has written an amazing story of a city and how it's people relate to it. Using himself and his family as examples he manages to convey how Istanbul and her people are irrevocably interconnected. Istanbul is more than a memoir, and much more than a travel guide. It's not only a voyage into the heart of a city, but also an anatomy of the soul of a people.
(Originally posted May 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.